Sunday, January 1, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes”

Alistair Duncan; Publisher: MX Publishing (December 2011)
“A snapshot is a very revealing thing… For in the day-to-day, the minutiae, much is revealed: the domestic arrangements of [Arthur Conan] Doyle’s butler which may have influenced the creation of the Barrymores from ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’; the bizarre Sculptograph machine (and its unhappy sequel) invented by a man named Bontempi and from which ‘The Six Napoleons’ may have sprung…” (Mark Gatiss)
“Sherlock Holmes began life as a character in fiction. He then became a national institution. He may become a solar myth.” (The Daily Express, March 25, 1902)
In an article entitled, “An Intimate Study of Sherlock Holmes,” which appeared in Detective Story Magazine on January 15, 1918, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked on the variable nature of his most famous creation: “I never realized what an actual living personality Mr. Holmes was to many people until I heard the very pleasing story of the char-à-banc of French schoolboys on a tour to London, who, when asked what they wanted to see first, replied unanimously that they wanted to see Mr. Holmes’ lodgings in Baker Street.”  Likewise, it is easy to feel that Doyle himself has grown to mythic proportions—a legendary man who created an equally legendary character, but who also existed in a very narrow scope and did not live in any real way.  Thankfully, Alistair Duncan’s grand and ambitious book—An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes—makes Doyle accessible again.  Duncan paints the picture of a man who was both brilliant and revolutionary, as well as entirely too human and fallible.
Alistair Duncan is the author of three previous works on the world of Sherlock Holmes and his creator.  His most recent work, The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894), also a biographical work, depicts the years of Doyle’s life leading up to the construction of Undershaw and the establishment of the household there.  An Entirely New Country opens with the Doyle family’s nomadic years after leaving South Norwood, continuing on to the opening of Undershaw in 1897, and concludes with Arthur Conan Doyle starting a new life and leaving Undershaw in the hands of tenants in 1907.  Duncan’s portrait of these years is comprehensive, uncompromising, and extremely readable.
Doyle experienced some of the most significant moments of his life during his time at Undershaw.  His wife, Louise Conan Doyle, passed away from a long illness—having survived far past her original grim prognosis largely due to her husband’s attentiveness to her health.  Subsequently, after her death, Doyle was finally able to propose to and marry Jean Leckie, with whom Doyle had been conducting what he certainly thought was a clandestine—while ostensibly platonic—affair of many years.  Although Duncan correctly points out that Doyle was operating under serious delusions if he thought that his family and friends—his wife included among them—were entirely blind as to the true nature of his feelings for Jean Leckie (180).
Furthermore, it was while at Undershaw that Doyle received a knighthood for his services to the British Empire during and after the Boer War.  At issue was Doyle’s extreme uneasiness with accepting the honor, and only acquiesced due to a desire to refrain from insulting King Edward, rather than any real desire for recognition.  According to Duncan, Doyle was finally able to vent his frustration over the situation with the publication of “The Three Garridebs,” where Dr. Watson mentions that Sherlock Holmes himself had declined a knighthood in June 1902. “The date was a clear reference to Conan Doyle’s own knighthood and, given his volatile relationship with his most famous character, it is possible that he rather enjoyed depriving Holmes of such an honor” (174).
And in regards to Doyle’s most famous creation, his time at Undershaw saw significant moments in the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes.  William Gillette’s play, featuring Doyle’s creation, premiered both in the United States and in London, with much success.  In 1901, readers saw the Great Detective resurrected with The Hound of the Baskervilles.  But it was a tenuous resurrection, as most Sherlockians know, as HOUN is set chronologically prior to the events of “The Final Problem,” and Holmes’s death at Reichenbach.  More significantly however, in 1903, Doyle accepted a commission from the American magazine, “Collier’s Weekly,” to write eight new Sherlock Holmes stories, for which he received $35,000 (American rights only).  Sherlock Holmes began to live again while at Undershaw, although it would seem that Doyle looked to every new story as if it would be the Detective’s last adventure, or so he hoped (187).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often seems to be as much of an enduring icon as the character he created—timeless, mythic, even larger-than-life.  Alistair Duncan strips all of that away, and reveals someone who was very real, and lived in a very human way.  He had very real failings, and very human desires and insecurities.  And if Doyle’s reasons for resurrecting Sherlock Holmes were purely fiscal, rather than fanciful, then Duncan helps his reader to accept those reasons.  For it doesn’t matter why Doyle chose to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, it only matters that he did.  By focusing solely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s years at Undershaw, Alistair Duncan provides the necessary framework and context to some of Doyle’s most significant moments and decisions.  The specificity of his project was ambitious, but Duncan fulfilled those demands and expectations in spades.
Reviews of Alistair Duncan’s previous works are available here.  You can also follow the author on his blog, or on Twitter. Alistair Duncan's books are available for purchase from MX Publishing.
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